Notes on a monastic discernment

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Tuesday 24, August 2010 | Category:   Vocation and Discernment

A few months ago discerner Jon Perrotti wrote VISION to say that at the time he was "taking part in an 'observership,' a noncommittal residential experience of monastic life, at Mount Saviour Monastery in Pine City, New York." And so," he said, "if sharing my experience can ever be of any help to other men or women considering a monastic vocation, this is the time to capture it with words. . . ." Here’s some of what he said.

"My life has afforded me a great deal of travel and adventure, and I have had much contact and rich encounters with people of other faiths, and indeed even religious experience outside of Christian tradition. I first meditated in a Zen Buddhist temple when I was a 17-year-old exchange student in Japan and practiced meditation off and on into my adulthood. I have done Hindu kirtan chanting and took part in a sweat lodge ceremony on an American Indian reservation. I have had conversations with and been impressed by the intellectual honesty and integrity of atheists, taken part in interfaith dialogue and prayer with Muslims, and danced and drummed with pagans. Yet, for me, [my] vocation would not be remotely possible if I could not bring my heart and mind into exclusive loyalty to one faith.

"I happen to have been born and raised Catholic, and something consistently drew me back to a Catholic expression of Christian faith, but the major turning point of my life that brought me to where I am today happened at the ecumenical monastic community of Taizé. There, the fragmented church, the broken Body of Christ, comes together to declare that Jesus Christ is the Light of the World. I learned there that the monastic life is not lived just for the sake of the life itself and its consequences to the monk. It is a radical life of following Christ courageously focused on powerful prayer and powerful witness.

"What a gamble it is to act on the hope that I can make . . . a difference in the world with prayer . . . . Do I really believe in God enough to take such a risk with my life? I don't want to be wasted! Can I trust God to hear my prayers? Where do you start? The problems of the world are so great. Am I running away from the challenge by going off to pray? Not if I believe the words of our Lord. He promised us that we would move mountains with our prayer. By the grace of God, that is what monks are doing and are called to do—move mountains."

He has some important questions. "How about proclaiming the gospel? The Lord told us: ‘No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house’ (Matthew 5:15). . . . The risk of failing to proclaim the gospel is the same for monks as it is for any other Christian. But the monastery has a unique and powerful opportunity for witness in the modem world, perhaps more than it has in any time in the history of Christendom, because as the world becomes more outrageous in its injustice, depravity, greed, and insane pace, the anomaly of the monastery stands out in stark relief for simply not following suit. More importantly, something happens when believers come together and dedicate their full lives to prayer and praising God. The Holy Spirit makes its presence known. An encounter with real holiness has got to be the most powerful witness to the existence of God that anyone, believer or nonbeliever, will find.

"Is all this vow-taking biblical? I was always particularly impressed with Jesus' admonishment about making oaths: ‘Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black’ (Matthew 5:36). This always rang true for me—live in the now, man! I didn't even like to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag because I thought, why should I pledge allegiance to my country? Who knows what our government will do tomorrow! Someone pointed out to me that vows are really statements of hope. A couple who make vows of marriage join in a common statement of hope that, with God's grace, their love will survive. I can conceive of taking vows because I have hope in Christ . . . and if I believe he is calling me to a particular life, I can make a vow as a statement of hope that I may be able to answer that call to the end.

"The more daunting fears are the fears of one who has made his bet with Christ. . . . If my choice to follow the Lord puts a wedge, or even a world of distance, between me and others, be they strangers whom I would have befriended or members of my own dear family, will that sacrifice have been for nothing? Would God let me make such a mistake? What if there's not a God, and my choice to live a life of prayer is a choice to waste my life? The greater fears about a monastic vocation are human ones. Surely there will be days when God seems to be absent. I think that is true for any pope or street-corner preacher, as it is for all who seek him through their lives. . . . So I will do my best on those days to sing with the psalmist, ‘O Lord . . . . why do you hide your face from me?’ (Psalm 88:14). I pray such days will be few. I believe they will be few, because so far God keeps showing up, amazingly."

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